Nature sure has a knack for interrupting astronomy.
Yesterday, observatories atop Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island were shut down in advance of Hurricane Iselle making landfall. But just across the Pacific Ocean in Northern California, a wildfire forced the shutdown of the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) — a collection of radio antennae that are seeking out signals from intelligent alien civilizations.
Ravaged by a historic drought, areas in California have become tinderboxes. This has created a particularly fertile environment for wildfires to be sparked. One of the two large fires in Lassen National Forest came within a mile of the observatory earlier this week, cutting power and causing some limited damage to instrumentation. The ATA is located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, nearly 300 miles San Francisco.
According to an update posted online by SETI astronomer Seth Shostak, the Eiler fire “is no longer threatening the Array.” As of Thursday the fire was 45 percent contained and the air quality had improved.
“You still wouldn’t want to jog here,” said SETI senior software engineer Jon Richards, “but it’s better. I think we got lucky with this.”
According to the LA Times, the wildfire caused “some damage” to the antennae and computer systems, but Shostak is confident that the systems will be operational some time on Friday.
The ATA has been beset with budgetary concerns for some time and this further interruption to operations would have been no doubt frustrating. But fortunately, for our fascination with seeking out alien intelligences in our galaxy, the observatory is safe from the Eiler fire.